There are less than a handful of reasons to hang around Jerome Avenue at the low 180s any time of day—that is, unless you've got a hankering for spicy stews. Home to an exploding population of Ghanaians that is the largest in the States, the Bronx has, in recent years, started to gain traction as a destination for honest, cheap West African food. Though the community is centered on the Melrose-Webster Avenue track, Ebe Ye Yie, just steps from the 183rd 4-train stop, is not far off the beaten path of plantains and palm oil. And it's very much worth the diversion.
While most Ghanaian restaurants have a spartan, cafeteria-like feel, Ebe Ye Yie's dining room is pleasantly decorated with framed art, colorful tablecloths, and neon blue light fixtures. Except for a couple weekend specials, there's no set menu, so you'll have to approach the Plexiglass window up front to order. Cooking begins early, but the kitchen doesn't really start serving until mid-afternoon.
Although rice is the de facto starch of nearby Senegal, the cuisine of Ghana, except for the northern regions, emphasizes fufu: logs of yams (and/or plantains) and cassava traditionally mashed together by mortar and pestle into a thick paste. Also popular is omo tuo, cooked rice molded into balls. The framed Arabic calligraphy explains the lack of pork, but there's plenty of goat, lamb, tilapia, chicken, and various offal offerings, too. Here, meals are a single course of a stew with a given starch and protein. Though plastic utensils are available, the traditional method of eating restricts the diner to her hands. If you're put off by the prospect, try to think of your chosen starch as an edible utensil. (Every table comes equipped with a bottle of hand sanitizer and a bowl of water for pre-meal rinsing.)
Ghanaian food is, at its root, stew-centric; the cuisine is tailored around the form and Ebe Yie Ye distinguishes itself with a very tasty Agushu or Egusi ($12.00). Served with anything from crawfish to lamb, and often offal, the dish takes its name from the fat-and-protein rich seeds of certain melon plants used to thicken it. As if to offer warning, a ring of red oil forms around the bowl's rim. Bits of dark spinach and minced habanero pepper drift like flotsam on the surface as, in the middle, a mound of pink lamb awaits eager mouths.
The squeamish, though, should take note. Most of the meat, tasty and a little chewy, had to be torn off very revealing segments of the jaw. One stray bone offered nothing but an intimidating, albeit incomplete, set of teeth. Beneath the surface laid the promised land of offal: soft kidney and tough, flavorful heart. For starch, get a log of sour and very sticky banku, blanched corn and cassava. More flavorful than fufu, it tastes best after being soaked in the earthy, almost goopy stew. Those unaccustomed to this sort of taste, though, may find the flavors to be too musky.
More approachable, though no less interesting, is the peanut butter stew with fufu ($12) and your choice of protein. Tomato, onion and eggplant are cooked separately before being blended together and then mixed with unsweetened peanut butter, dried fish and magi bouillon cubes. Thick and fairly spicy, the sauce has an interesting range of flavor that emphasizes the peanut butter and dried fish with a natural and agreeable sweetness from the tomato.
To mop up the stew, tear off chunks of the perfectly absorbent fufu. The best of the protein bunch is the fried tilapia, with delicious skin and zesty meat, the prodigious amount of oil and spices used overcoming the fish's typical blandness. Chewy and very gamey goat, served in chunks often on the bone and with slabs of skin, comes in at a close second. However, the cow's feet failed to impress. The pieces of pure cartilage were weirdly gelatinous and flavor proved hard to come by. Those with tighter stomachs may want to try fiery "light soup" ($11), an oil-less and atypically thin creation. Cooked with chicken from a local live poultry shop, the sticky soup is made with tomato, onion, pepper, water, and loads of ginger. An addition of minced okra goes a long way towards enhancing the flavor.
Stews are not the only option. There's always rice and beans ($9) or equally filling jollof rice ($10), a pan-West African dish of rice cooked red by tomato paste that is often recommended to pensive foreigners. A side of fried chicken, served and cooked in a dark gravy similar in taste and texture to bean-stew Red Red, will run you $2. There's not a ton of meat on these bones, but what you get is one of the tastier things the restaurant has to offer. Save some fufu to soak up the exceptional sauce, which has a sweet flavor that fades into heat towards the end.
After receiving your food, you may be asked, "Do you like pepper?" What the server really means is shitor din, or pepper relish. (In Ga, the language of Accra, shito means pepper.) Don't overestimate your tolerance for the hot stuff, though. Made of oil, ginger, tomatoes, garlic, dried fish and/or crustaceans, and peppers, shitor din is a seriously spicy concoction used as an everyday condiment that the owner claims she cannot live without. Here, it comes in two varieties: chunky, fishy black and smooth, tangy and dry-burn inducing red. Mix the relish into your stews for additional heat or, for more immediate intensity, rub it onto the meat.
Though all the way back in 1975 a recipe for Ghanaian peanut stew was featured in The Joy of Cooking, the cuisine has yet to make its mark the consciousness of the American diner. Even though many of the ingredients used are very familiar, the flavors often taste obscure to the American palate. Yet despite its emphasis on hearty stews, Ghanaian food is really quite sophisticated. Like the food of Southeast Asia, it encompasses a world's worth of ingredients in a very distinctive manner. As more and more immigrants establish themselves here, their fascinating food will become too difficult to ignore.
Ebe Ye Yie
2364 Jerome Ave, Bronx NY 10458 (map)